When I was a boy and first upset by the strange filthy-looking people who paraded about our streets, asking for things, my father explained that they were called homeless, but that this was not their entire story. He told me, so as to not upset me concerning the state of their lives, that they usually liked being homeless, that their rags and unkempt hair were like the painted faces and wigs of the clowns we’d seen at the circus that Sunday. He explained it was only a costume, that some of them weren’t even homeless at all, that they had homes and wives and little boys like me, that the way they got ready for work each morning was to take a shower of dirt and wrap themselves in bandages, that there were even some who had other jobs, good jobs, as bureaucrats and bankers, and that these ones were really only actors when they walked about all crooked. The few, the very few, that slept on the streets because they had to, had chosen it long ago, had decided to take strange pills and give their money away in bright rooms of gambling. These were the ones who perhaps did not like to be homeless, but had chosen it just the same.
I am older now and know that although these things are not exactly true, the homeless are part of the city, and that despite where they came from, they are not noticed often. But I am not homeless, and as this is my story, I know you would be quite caught up in boredom if I strayed from what concerns me into the shrunken limbs and plastic tarps.
I am not a man taken to writing, to painting, to art. At the ballet last night, I found myself only thinking of the women I’ve known and will know, of dinner. My wife says she thought only of the dancing, but as I looked around the theater, and considered each person and what they were considering, be it the ceiling, their fingernails, the rain, I knew quite well that this was not only art for them, that if anything they were admiring the bodies of the dancers and not the dance. At museums we care far more about the artists than the art, how else would one explain the worthlessness of a perfect replica of Abaporu? I am writing this then only to answer a question of yours, my son.
I worked hard as a young man, not as hard as I might have, but harder than other young men and I went to a good university and had a good job, and worked often. Not being fond of this first job, I soon found another, but this one was not entirely satisfying either. As I was work- ing in a big finance firm, though, it was easy to flip about what I was doing. So I changed from investment analyst to strategic analyst to real estate analyst, all within in the same firm. After seven years of my moving, the company decided they would move me. But this job would be like a vacation. I would do it and it would lighten me, and when I returned, I’d work harder. It was a position at a nonprofit firm operated by my firm, and a few of the other for-profit firms, the consulting firms, the banks. And the workers at the non-profit firms were all workers taking breaks from their for-profit firms, CEOs and analysts who felt guilty or despondent.
I felt no guilt because the bank I worked for did no more wrong than to operate in a society which itself may have been flawed, but the flaws of the bank itself were never the fault of the bank, and even less due to me. Prostitution is a sad affair but if I do not visit a brothel, they will still exist, and if I do visit a brothel, it is better for the prostitute that I am not an old filthy man who sees the whore as an object. I was not sent to the nonprofit for guilt. I do admit I was a little tired, my boss believed it would revive me. I knew he would relieve me if I did not go, and that if the time away did not improve me, I would be disposed of.
I am still not sure exactly what many parts of the nonprofit did. The office was a cavernous, quiet space, suits bent over silver laptops, a seldom used coffee machine in the corner. After one week of being analyzed, I was assigned to a project in Rio de Janeiro. It was the year before a big event in Rio de Janeiro, and as always the city was working to pacify the favelas, the Brazilian slums. The company from which I was resting was always working to develop poor urban areas. They can be excellent pieces of real estate, and in a few short decades, excellent locations for luxury apartments. The non-profit was working to mitigate the effects of “integration” of the slums, which is gentrification of the slums, which is taking out the ugly.
As it was not a place with a clear power structure, I was not given a tremendous amount of guidance or limitation for what I did with Rio de Janeiro. I was given the papers of the other people who’d been doing work in the area and had since left the non-profit to return to their real jobs. I would work to ensure educational opportunities for the favela children, and to be certain that the young who needed homes would not have them destroyed during integration. After months of spreadsheets and conference calls, I flew to Rio with my wife and you, my son. She was pregnant with you, and refused to stay in New York alone. She was prone to all sorts of strange wants during that time, due to the pregnancy.
We had married one year before. Her family had been against it. They, from the South, were not confederates but the kind of family that had been. I, not being from the South, had upset them. They, all professors and politicians, and had called my line of work dishonorable which was both amusing and untrue when held up against their history. Her family also did not like me because although I’d always stayed within the firm, I’d cycled through it. They said I’d be out entirely soon, which I was afraid would prove true, now that their pregnant daughter and I were in Rio, a place further south than them.
The favela I was concerned with was in a prime location. Your mother wanted to visit it, and though the taxi driver looked at us strangely, and though I was not sure of my own safety, he or I could not persuade her otherwise. At the base of the favela the colored, I’ll not call them houses, the brightly colored walls and roofs began marching up the mountains, dropped onto one another like the blocks you so love to build into cities. For the first few feet it was like any lower class neighborhood I’ve seen. Dark- skinned people, two children sitting on a bicycle for one, street vendors of cheap stolen cell phones, stores of fried dough and meat, if you’re not careful you might get cat. They were men in red vests waiting on motorcycles to be paid to drive customers up the cramped winding streets to cramped houses with open doorways and windows. We walked up, and saw “Bem Vindo” in bloated text sprawling across the concrete, other pictures and phrases covering the wall. Unlike in the good parts of the city, there were no English translations.
The man had assured me that this favela was on its way to pacification. I saw two policemen on the street corner, and was not sure if I should trust them. An open- backed truck of white chickens crowded in boxes of wire drove by. My wife, a vegetarian, did not like this. Up, and a badly smelling storefront, if it can be called that, because in the favelas, the stores are all open to the street, no door to walk in at all. In this one hung animal carcasses that I would not have eaten. Up were three overflowing trash bins and a thin legged man in rubber boots picking through them. Telephone wires tangled into one another. At one street there were dozens of tennis shoes with their laces knotted together hanging. And still, we walked up the main avenue.
Do not think I am the kind of man with a fashionable passion for the slums. I do not find dirt appealing, nor barefooted children charming. I think graffiti and falling in houses are ugly. I do not like streets too small for cars, or to imagine how glamorous it would be to live here. I would not have gone to the meeting with the man at all had my position not required it, and I might have demanded we hold it elsewhere had my wife not wanted to see the “real” Rio de Janeiro so badly.
You may be wondering why the meeting was in the slums, as was I. I was expecting that, as it was a meeting for the non-profit run by my firm with a sad individual who’d devoted his life to the difficulties of the favela. I expected that he was attempting to thrust the poverty in my face. I do not like when people do this. I know people are poor.
Up, and then, on a stoop was a dog. Its head was covered in sores. Its fur was black and it was shivering despite the heat. Flies and the stink of lunchmeat sat heavy. This is when my wife said, “I think, I think, I’m not feeling well.”
I was not going to let her turn back after she had wanted to come so stubbornly.
“What should I do?” I asked her.
“I need to, let’s walk a little farther.”
Up until we were in the residential neighborhood, walls of colors that perhaps had once been cheerful. My wife, with no shame, and no Portuguese, leaned down to a child with well-cared-for shoes and spoke to him.
“Ola,” she said.
“Ola,” he said, defiantly, because there were not many white well-dressed women here and perhaps he thought she should’ve known better than to come here, and to, upon coming here, speak to a local.
“Ola, agua por ele?” I said. I knew that this wasn’t quite Portuguese but I just wanted to find somewhere for her to sit and have a bottle of water, the water from the tap is filthy in Brazil.
He, nine years old or perhaps older, had started with English and once it was clear I could not understand I think he said in his own language, began to speak in a clear, forced English. I don’t like poetry, for precisely this reason, but it was what his speech reminded me most of, in its constant slipping and struggling.
Once he led my wife inside, I had only ten minutes or so before my meeting, though Brazilians are always late. The boy practiced his English with my wife, who was quite enamored with this little dark thing and he was stunned by her blondness and lightly freckled white skin. He told us that he liked school and about his home which his family had built after coming from the poor Northeast several generations ago. It was modest, but comfortable, and one wonders why we are always fretting so much over the abject poverty when the lights work. The boy sounded dumb, as he was speaking English, but that is the luck of being born into the wrong language.
I went to meet the man, one of the city officials applying the measures of pacification.
“Hello, hello,” he said. “We are here to talk about slum development?”
His English was accented but quite good.
“Yes,” I said. “This one is being pacified? What exactly is pacification?”
“Pacification today is about getting these people basic structure, so that these places become civilized, parts of society. We knocked out Favela do Metrô. Now, it’s trash, but in the future it will be livable. We can’t do that with all of them, but we are getting rid of the drugs. The drug lords used to run this favela, and now it’s becoming the police, sometimes still, the police are influenced by the drugs, it’s true. Rio is becoming important to the world and it can’t be known as favelas. First, we need the favelas to stop being dangerous, and next, we need them to stop being favelas.
“Your company can help with both of these things and soon, you’ll benefit so much. These homes, here and here,” now we walked towards the street where I’d left my wife, “are going to be replaced soon. We’ll demolish them and let the property sit for a while until most of the squatters are gone. Soon, this will be a neighborhood like Copacabana.”
“Why these homes?”
“They were constructed by people who might not have even owned the land. They don’t meet city codes. They’re prone to landslides, drug trafficking. We have many other firms looking at property like this. It’s valuable.”
We walked about the neighborhood, the streets that weren’t quite streets but would soon be nothing. We passed the house where your mother sat.
“This house?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said. “We’re excited about the kind of development your firm does.”
“You know,” I said, “I’m here to represent a non-profit firm, not the other company.”
“So?” he said.
“I’m here for a project with the non-profit that is devoted to helping the children of this favela.”
“You cannot help the city if you worry about one child.”
“I know. And this is the way cities work. The poor people have to leave when they can’t afford
to live somewhere, and one day where they move will be worth something too.”
“But what happens when the people do not want to leave?”
“We offer them resettlement, compensation packages. We warn them before eviction. You’re working for a non- profit?”
“Not really. No.”
I saw then what would happen.
On the walk back we stepped over cheap tiles done in an imitation of the waves of white and black stone of the Copacabana boardwalk. The patterns here were a shrunken replica and the black and white had begun to fade to grey. No designers had been hired to imagine these streets into artwork. You cannot see the beach from here, or perhaps you could, but the buildings were too close together for any good view.
When I returned to my wife, the hands of the boy were on her stomach.
“Did you feel that?”
“Yes,” he said. “It was a strong kick.” The boy looked at me, “It will be a boy. I know. Parabéns.”
“Clara,” I said, “Let’s go.”
“Senhora Clara,” he promised with the sincerity only a child can have. “If you want anything in the city, I can do it for you. I can help you with your Portuguese.”
“Obrigada!” she said, which means thank you and also this is the only thing I know how to say in Portuguese.
“And, you,” the boy said turning to me. “Your wife said you will help this favela. Thank you. My family has been here for much time. If they take away our house or our favela, it will be very hard. We do not have much, and if we lose our home, I will not be able to go to school.”
“You won’t lose your home,” your mother said. “He’s working for children like you.”
“Please, remember the others,” he said.
“Oh!” your mother said. “He’s kicked again.”
“I think you need to go back to the hotel,” I told her.
“Goodbye!” she said to the boy, letting him kiss her on the cheeks.
I’d called a taxi, and on the drive down your mother spoke to me of how much she’d loved the boy, and how much you’d been kicking. She was proud of the work I was doing.
“Clara,” I said. “You do know that I can’t work at the non-profit for much longer. It is not set up that way, and if I put the interests of the favela ahead of those of my firm, they would never take me back.”
“Well, it is good you are working for the favela now. You will help him. It will be so good.”
I would invest in the favela of course. I do not need to tell you, because you know already. I stopped with the non-profit and once the favela had been civilized, we rented an apartment there, on a street near the home of the sad little boy who had felt you kicking. And though it has become much nicer, and the police control the city the way they should, if you do see a beggar, which you will, I want you to know that you must understand what he is.
There was a boy in the street today, fourteen or fifteen years of age. I don’t know if you will remember this when you read it, but we were coming home from the circus. You were happily holding the red clown nose you’d wanted so badly. The car had been parked and we were nearly at our door when this boy began speaking to your mother, asking her to stop.
“Liçenca Tia, liçenca.”
We are only in Rio for part of the year, when I have business or it’s cold in New York and I still do not speak much Portuguese, maybe by the time you read this, you’ll have learned. Your mother tries to learn sometimes, but is very busy taking care of you.
I kept walking past the boy, your mother though, was pregnant again and full of whims.
“Ola,” she said. “Dinheiro?”
This means “Hello. Yes, I am a white woman. Would you like some of my money?”
He did not say anything, only stared at us, and then towards the house to where we were walking.
“Clara,” I said. “Let’s go.”
You grabbed your mother’s hand, your other tightly protecting the nose of the clown.
“Ola,” the boy said, to you this time. And then he began with a stream of Portuguese I could not understand, only the word “casa” or “house” and “mentiroso” which is “liar.”
“Desculpe,” your mother said, her Portuguese somewhat improved in the last five years. “Não entende muito bem.” This meant she did not understand, almost.
“English?” the boy said. “Do you want English? I used to want English too, but I have not had school for years. Did you know I used to live here? I need money. Do you have money?”
“Here,” your mother said, dropping five reais into his palm.
I thought this would be enough.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”
Then it was your mother who began to shake and say, “You used to live here?”
“Yes, I did.”
I do not know if you will remember the boy when you read this, but there was a wound on his cheek, an unex- plained wound. It could have been gained in a fight, or could have been infection. Had it been on his leg or arm, it would have still been a wound, but not so ghastly. It was an open cut, or sore, I’m not sure how to describe it, but there is no ignoring a mark like that when it is on a face. I became angry that he had decided to talk to us, with you looking so small, and he so ruined.
“But what happened?” your mother asked.
I did not know why she was asking this, as she knew very well that I had convinced my firm of the value of an investment here, and that we and the city had cleared out all the slum housing. She knew that not only had it been the best thing for the company, but the best for our family, as it had secured my position at the firm, and secured her ability to live well and have children.
Then you spoke.
You let go of your mother and asked the boy, “What happened?”
He just looked at you, the five reais note in his hand. I was prepared to pick you up and run. But he only looked at you and turned away, began the walk down the hill.
“What happened to him?” you asked your mother. She was crying.
“That boy is in the street because of your father.”
“But why is he in the street? What is he?”
“He’s homeless,” she said.
“Because of you?” you said to me.
I could not answer then, but I will not lie to you as my father did to me. This boy was not an actor, and what he is is not his fault. The deal, though, would’ve happened whether or not I made it, perhaps by a firm who didn’t have any morals at all. Your mother wanted to be wealthy and to live with a lovely view of Rio, and then there was you, son.
Your mother may have cried, but she will keep living here. As will you.